Analytical skills in social science


Some reflections by Mike Hart


Here are some personal observations only which you may find helpful.  Forgive the use of extended metaphors on occasion.


I suspect that when analysing a argument (written or spoken) we can generally discern the following elements:


(a)   Domain assumptions
Can we ascertain the background assumptions of the author i.e. is it primarily an academic piece of work or seeking to persuade? (A lot of government White Papers falls into the latter category in my view) What or who is the intended audience?  Does it draw primarily from the work of one academic discipline (economics, political science) in which certain assumptions or concepts are taken as read?


(b)   Construction of the argument
I have in mind the articles by Falconer and by Manning in the New Public Management lecture (Lecture 6) of Public Service Delivery which you can find on (Lecture 6 –Articles)

We can discern the following elements:

- what are the raw materials of the argument ( i.e. is a survey, using others research in a desk-based survey, own first hand knowledge)

- can we observe a masterful deconstruction of the arguments (Falcolner and Manning both do this well, in my view)  Like an anatomist, do they lay bare the underlying structures with clarity and skill?

- some authors use deconstruction in order to reconstruct an argument in their own terms i.e. they are engaged in new theory building.  If done (and not all intend to do it or do it), is it done impressively?

-  how well articulated (i.e. joined up!) is the deconstruction and the construction process?


(c)   Style
Style seems a rather impressionistic subject but refers to use of language, use of argument and general ‘flair’ in presentation terms.  I think it is possible to argue that an article can appear very competent in style but doesn’t actually say a great deal (White Papers in the Blair era?) in comparison with worthy but dull arguments which say quite a lot but do not say it very well (pre-Blair White Papers?)


(d)   Insights
Some articles offer amazing good insights even if only in a word or so which help us grasp a subject matter in a new light.  I can think of two or three  examples:

-  Peter’s work Management by Wandering About?  Do we need to read the book?

-  Hirschman (1970) wrote a stimulating book detailing how consumers can respond to organisations supplying them with services.  The title of the book is Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organisations and States and the whole thesis is summed up as ‘voice’ versus ‘exit’ i.e. people often complain vociferously to get something done or they ‘vote with their feet’ i.e. shop elsewhere, get another job and so on.  Powerful for a few words!

- Osborne and Gaebler’s Reinventing Government sum up their view that the role of government should be ‘steering rather than rowing’ [Incidentally, I asked  a distinguished visiting academic his view of this book and he replied, delphically, ‘In the state where I live there is a river which appears very broad but which is actually only a few inches deep.  Need I say more?’]


(e)  Conclusions
We are buying an article of clothing e.g. a jacket or a skirt.  The first thing that attracts us is the style (colour, appearance) but we then examine the materials (what is made of? how well it wear) and then the construction process (is it well-made e.g. lined, properly overlocked)  When we decide to buy it may be that style predominates over construction, or we may be tempted by its quality despite its style.  So I think style and construction are often elements of analysis.


You can find some other arguments on analysis taken from a book by Sheila Cottrell

I append them to the bottom of this article.  I hope you find this useful – it’s only my own thoughts!

Taken from: Chapter 9, The Study Skills Handbook by Stella Cottrell.

what is critical and analytical thinking?

Critical analytical thinking is a key part of university study. Many first year students receive comments such as 'not analytical enough' on their early assignments. You will find that you develop your critical and analytical skills as you go through university. In brief, this means looking very closely at the detail and not taking what you read or hear for granted. Your tutors will expect you to:

·         evaluate how far materials are appropriate, and up-to-date

·         evaluate how far the evidence or examples used in materials really proves the point that the author claims

·         to weigh up opinions, arguments or solutions against appropriate criteria

·         to think a line of reasoning through to its logical conclusion

·         check for hidden bias or hidden assumptions

·         check whether the evidence and argument really support the conclusions.

You will need to do this for materials that you read. For example, when you cite a source of evidence for your own arguments, you will need to be sure that the evidence really does support your point, and is accurate and reliable. You are expected to be very critical of your sources, using evidence that has been well researched rather than just your own opinion or what your friends think.


identify the main line of reasoning in what you read or write

·         What is the main argument or line of reasoning?

·         Is the line of reasoning clear from the text?

critically evaluate the line of reasoning for what you read or write

·         Note any statements from the text which strengthen its line of reasoning or prove the argument.

·         What statements, if any, undermine the argument?

·         Are points made in the best logical order?

identify hidden agendas in your sources and in your own writing

·         What hidden agendas might the writer have that might make you question the contents or conclusions of the passage? Consider what they might hope to gain through writing this piece.

·         What information might be missing that could paint a different picture?

evaluate evidence in the text

·         What kinds of evidence or examples does the writer use? How reliable and useful is this evidence?

·         Does it really support the argument? Is the evidence strong enough?

·         Is the data up-to-date?

·         Does the text use reliable sources? What are these? What makes you think they are or are not reliable?

look for bias

·         Do you think there may be any bias in the text? Give reasons and examples.

·         Comment on any statistics used. Are these likely to give a true and full picture?

·         Does their writing reflect a political viewpoint?

·         Who might disagree with the writer?

identify the writer's conclusions

·         Does the evidence support the writer's conclusions?

·         Does the line of reasoning lead you to make the same conclusions?

critical skills when writing

·         Apply the same rigour to your own writing as you do to analysing source materials.

·         Work out early on what your conclusion is and write this down where you can see it easily. Use this as a guide for what to read, what experiments to run, what examples to use.

·         Before you begin your main piece of writing for an assignment, write your conclusion on a piece of paper and stick this at the top of the computer. Keep referring back to this to ensure that all of your writing leads towards this conclusion. The outline plan for your writing should map out how each paragraph leads your reader towards the conclusion.

·         Ensure that your conclusion can be supported by the evidence. If you cannot find the evidence to support your position, you may need to change your conclusion.